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January 22, 2008

I’ll Take My Massage At Solage

By Courtney Cochran

spa.jpgIn Napa for a conference last week, I stopped by new spa/hotel hot spot Solage in Calistoga to see what all the fuss was about.  The Auberge property, aimed at a younger demographic and completed in mid 2007, has taken some flak for its uber-minimalist design and “bungalows” rumored to recall military barracks more than cozy wine country cottages, so naturally I was eager to check it out and cast my vote.  

On a low note, true to the rumors I found the dwellings and landscaping disappointingly stark, the whole thing reminiscent of a deserted mini-tract-home community where the developers (perhaps prompted by the recent mortgage crisis) left in the night before finishing the landscaping.  The ghost town vibe wasn’t helped by the worrisome lack of guests; aside from myself and four other diners at the poolside BarSolage café there wasn’t a soul stirring on the nearly treeless “environmentally sensitive” grounds.

High Notes: Service & Spa
Happily, unlike the landscaping the service was anything but spare. Everyone I encountered during my visit, from bellhop to waiter to spa attendant, was cheerful and eager to help, in all likelihood relieved just to have someone to attend to.  Whether this level of attention can continue when patronage at Solage picks up (it should be noted that January is wine country’s slowest month for tourism) remains to be seen, but it’s a good sign nonetheless.  

On the whole, the best part of the Solage experience seems to be the spa, which is immaculate, vast, and offers a good variety of standard and more innovative services.  While some of the spot’s treatments sound a little contrived (sample: The Mudslide Experience features treatments administered in the mud “bar” by a “mud-tender”), others such as advanced facials from the school of celeb facialist Kate Somerville are solid additions to local spa offerings.  

Where Minimalism Makes Sense
And it's in the spa where the minimalist vibe that falls short on the rest of the property finds its best expression.  Spas are by nature simple, clean and zen, and so it's probably no surprise that the resort's restrained modernism seems right at home at SpaSolage.  

If they’d only plant a few more trees, I might be able to say the same for the rest of the place.   

December 28, 2007

Wine: No Longer a Stowaway at the Movies

by Courtney Cochran

theatres_1_icon.jpgIf you're like me, you may have stashed a bottle of vino in your purse or overcoat on occasion before heading into the movies.  Sure, you felt a bit sheepish about your contraband, but when the opening credits rolled to the tune of a lush Santa Rita Hills Pinot, you knew you’d taken the risk for good reason.  Still, sipping from the Styrofoam cup you snagged at the concession made your reward seem less sweet.

With the opening of Sundance Cinemas San Francisco at the old AMC Kabuki Theater in Japantown (sundancecinemas.com ), you can purchase wine by the half glass or glass and take it right into the theater with you, no smuggling required.  The first theater in the city to snag a liquor license, Sundance offers moviegoers an eclectic lineup of 25 wines sourced from both local and global producers, many of them made from organic or sustainably farmed grapes.  

Even better, they’ll give you a real glass, too.  

Full disclosure: I am the sommelier who selected the wines for Sundance Cinemas. 

December 13, 2007

Winter Resort Golf

By Robert Farmer

silverado_golf2.jpgI'm not among the dying breed of global warming deniers, and I happen to believe that the issue is a serious one. But if I had to see the bright side (and I usually do), then I’d say one of the benefits of the earth getting warmer would be year-round golf without chasing down to Palm Springs for the winter.

Here it is December and there have been dozens of great golf days so far this fall — like summer all over. So it's in this spirit that I am glad to report that one of my favorite Wine Country golf destinations has announced a rather warm offer to people like me. Napa Valley’s Silverado Resort (800-532-0500; www.silveradoresort.com) has dropped like a ten-foot birdie putt its prices on popular golf and spa packages. Through Feb. 29, the resort is offering a roomy suite and golf for two with cart for each night's stay for the screaming-deal-price of $289 on Friday and Saturdays. It's even cheaper on weekdays. It's a great price and an excellent chance to don the long-sleeve gear (it might be sunny, but it can get chilly), and experience one of the region's great golf outings. And come summer, you'll be tuned up and ready for more heated competition.



October 29, 2007

Seeing Stars

By Robert Farmer

OK, so I couldn’t let this go by without acknowledging it. Because not too long ago in this space, I offered my humble insight into what I have long considered the most power-packed dining destination per square mile in the United States. And now my article about Yountville has proven prescient (if I may take a moment to strain my arm patting myself on the back) because recently the good people at Michelin Guides have concurred with my enlightened wisdom and bejeweled the tiny Napa Valley town with six — count ‘em, six!—stars. Impressive, right? Especially when you consider that you can walk from one end of the town to the other in ten minutes, while there are entire countries in Europe with no Michelin stars. During that ten minute walk you’ll of course pass the legendary French Laundry, which perhaps not surprisingly was re-awarded its three stars, accounting for fully half of the town’s star-count. But you’ll also pass Bouchon, Bistro Jeanty, and Redd, each of which received a star—Redd enjoying its first such accolade. But my recommendation of course is not to walk past this stellar collection of culinary star-power. It’s to go in and grab a table.

October 23, 2006

The Color and Beauty of Harvest

By M.L. Hilton

(NAPA, CA) -- It takes a bit of practice: getting inured with the beauty and ever changing scenery of the Napa and Sonoma counties. I haven’t gotten there yet, and hope that I retain enough youthful enthusiasm for my entire life to be delighted by what my eyes bring me each day.

This morning had that remarkable October Harvest weather that is *perfect.* A full compliment of hot air balloons had lifted lazily off from their launching pads, like a bubble expressed by Mother Nature herself. They drifted one-by-one into the morning sky that was almost more colorful than the ornamental flying machines.

The air itself smells of wine, and you can see (and I giggle at it) smashed grapes that have lost their balance and fallen into street intersections from the gondola trucks traversing the Valley. I have been visiting wineries lately, and have stepped over many a man-made mud puddle that is the color burgundy. Dusty, dirty, and grape-stained workers are everywhere bearing a look of fatigue that is offset with a glint and a tired smile that lets you know they are on the home-stretch.

Tasting rooms are packed, at least on the weekend, and traffic is slow along the major wine roads as awe-struck tourists stop every few feet to photograph the vines which undulate fall colors like moiré fabric.

I am not irritated by them. I myself uttered “wow” audibly three times during a commute to Calistoga -- even though I was alone in my car. Today, anything that slows me down, keeps me looking and experiencing, is a blessing. The alternative is sitting here in front of this computer.

October 15, 2006

Like the Vines, I am Getting Ready for Winter

by M.L. Hilton

(NAPA, CA) -- I am sitting in front of my computer in comfort clothes. The day has turned achromatic, and though not cold, the overcast drives away any feeling of warmth.

Yesterday and the day before, we enjoyed a luminous headlong descent into autumn – leaves shouting out from trees and vines in a riot of colorful expression. It’s the last party before winter’s dormancy and it looks, and feels, amazing.

I have spent my last two weeks eating my way through some of Napa and Sonoma’s most interesting restaurants, diving into tasting rooms and drinking mostly pinot noirs and sparkling wines. My waste line and flagging muscles say I need to stop, but the autumn keeps nudging me on: Enjoy us, enjoy us – winter is coming soon. Like my years, with senior-citizenship right around the corner, I am feeling camaraderie with the leaves: unwilling to be bound by anything other than the inevitable march of time.

During the early part of October, I have celebrated new friendships and new opportunities across the Napa and Sonoma wine country. We started our culinary party in one of my favorite places – Della Santina’s just off the Sonoma square; enjoying also Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg; Angele in Napa, and Friday’s meal at Zare was colorful, complex in its flavors, and we were attended by a most engaging server.

Breakfasts (because once you embark on eating well, why stop at dinner?): Of course Gordon’s Café in Yountville, a really great Sunday Brunch at Brix (also Yountville) and the BEST oatmeal I have ever eaten at Costeaux French Bakery & Café in Healdsburg.

In between that all? Life would not be fully worth living without several trips to Bouchon Bakery in Yountville. Sometimes the services gets a bit, well French, but you can overlook that once you have selected, and are enjoying, your sandwich or treat.

If perchance you bump into me in the next week or two, and I look a bit distracted, give me some quarter – it is more likely that I am just satiated and bulking up (perhaps emotionally) for the long, cold trip through winter.

September 24, 2006

The Smell of Home

By ML Hilton

(NAPA, CA) -- Something didn’t happen to me. It was something that was obvious in its absence. Normally, when I leave Napa – and I love to travel – the return over the Butler Bridge (the Southern crossing) heralds the end of my journey, and causes a stab of “why did I leave.” Usually it is the smell that triggers it. The smell that changes from the Bay Area’s urban road odors of hot concrete or wet pavement to the sweet breaths of loamy earth that fragrantly hangs around the Napa River’s broad reaches, sloughs, and southern flood plain.

I know I am home when those smells hit my nose. It has been an aroma that has comforted me for two decades.

After my last trip this past week to the San Luis Obispo wine country, I still smelled it on Friday night as I pulled in dusty from a hasty two-day road trip. I guess the epiphany was that I didn’t feel like I had been away.

I cut my teeth on Napa wine (after a brief acquaintance with Boone’s Farm and Mateus). Napa wine country has been my home for all most all of my adult life. I admit, I am prejudiced – home is best.

But, the place I call home has seemed to grow. Philosophically encompassing more of California wine country than just the eighth of an acre where the post office delivers my mail.

This came to me, as I sat having lunch at Tolosa winery on Friday. It was a blessing of the grapes ceremony, celebrating the fact that they were finally starting to pick their Pinot Noir, and celebrating their ties with the historic mission in San Luis Obispo.

It was during lunch that I looked out over the rolling hills of the Edna Valley, closed my eyes, flared my nostrils and realized . . . I just didn’t feel that far from home.

September 8, 2006

Harvest Arrives

By M.L. Hilton

(NAPA, CA) --The hills were suffused with that soft red glow. It was early evening, and I was on my way home; a slow, easy journey down Silverado Trail.

It is almost my favorite time of year in the Valley. Though, I must admit any season has reasons to hold it up as beloved. The leaves now have reached that deep green of late summer, the grapes have almost all achieved verasion and hang intensely purple beneath their canopies.

The very atmosphere seems to carry an air of anticipation. All the vintners and growers are on their starters blocks, waiting for the crack of the gun that signals the race is on.

Weather becomes watched closely and discussed endlessly. I wonder about the cool spot that we have hit. I think it bodes well for the Carneros cool climate varieties of pinot noir and chardonnays, but are the mid valley and hillside grapes getting enough sun to bump them toward that point of essential ripeness? Opinions vary amongst the lay people kibitzing over coffee in the coffee shops. The professionals, of course, are all out in the field by the time of day that I roll out of bed.

It never ceases to amaze me that this is it for the winemakers. The one and only time of year that they get to produce their merchandise. They get no other chance, at no other time of year.

No wonder the expectancy is almost palpable.

August 20, 2006

A Night to Celebrate: Mike Grgich, Forward from the Paris Tasting

By M.L. Hilton

(NAPA, CA) -- It was an evening of official acknowledgment for a man already well recognized. On Friday, August 18, a discrete crowd of handsome tuxedo-garbed men and sparkling-attired women – many luminaries in their own rights, came to pay homage to Mijenko Grgich.

Titled: An American Dream Come True, the evening’s program paid tribute to the life and achievements of this Croatian-born immigrant. Mike rose to international prominence in 1976 as the winemaker for Chateau Montelena after their 1973 Chardonnay was chosen as the winning white wine in the now historic Paris Tasting.

As with most auspicious events, this overnight success story was years in the making, and few of its participants have been content to rest upon those laurels. It is upon the world’s wine stage that Mike has continued to shine.

The festivities on Friday started with Fume Blanc and oysters on the Herb Terrace at Greystone in St. Helena. The late afternoon weather achieved perfect pitch and the view over vineyards held the glow of the sun’s fading rays. A small group of dancing children, in traditional Croatian costumes marched and weaved and bobbed. They were younger by half than most of the wines sitting on display for the silent auction.

This year coincides with the 30th anniversary of the Paris Tasting, and Mike opened his cellars to help commemorate Napa’s entrée into the exclusive clan of fine wine producing regions, and to raise money for a scholarship program funding professional wine studies at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA).

The silent auction included wines from:
Beaulieu Vineyard: 1951, 1954, 1960, 1961, 1964, and 1965 Georges de Latour Private Reserve;
Chateau Montelena: 1973 and 1974 Cabernet Sauvignon;
And a 1943 Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon.

It was the live auction and dinner where the party picked up. Celebrated auctioneer Ursula Hermacinski quickly dispatched the three live auction items, with the most interest in the last known remaining full case of 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay.

Ursula induced all to stand, and to take a step forward at every increment of $100 per bottle, or to sit when your bidding level had been reached. I had to opt out of this adult’s game of Simon Says before it started. Approximately 12 bidders reached the stage pledging to pay around $550 a bottle (as yet unconfirmed by the winery). Ursula would not allow collusion among the bidders and there was no pooling of resources to play, or actually to pay. But everyone seemed happy with their prize.

Stellar guests in attendance were Robert and Margrit Biever Mondavi, along with son Tim. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger sent a letter of official recognition along with Ed Heidig, general counsel for Secretary Sunny Wright McPeak, to represent the State. Local media was well in attendance, and most tables were seated with admiring members of the Grgich Hills wine clubs.

My lively table included a handsome doctor from Dallas (yes, he wore boots), the Prices from Fresno (who will soon be celebrating a scandalously long marriage), and two Bodega Bay movers and shakers – Chris Wedel from Inn at the Tides, and her guest, Charlene Schnall.

No matter how much fun I had, the night belonged to Mike and his family and while the focus was on the famous Paris Tasting and the notable survival of a full case of ’73 Montelena Chard, many rose to the podium to speak about Mike’s continued contributions, his successes, his charity, and of course, Grgich Hill’s current wines and farming practices.

During a recent interview I had with Mike, I asked him if, 30 years ago, he was surprised by the results of the Paris Tasting. Melodie, he told me, I was prepared to make world class wines.

August 12, 2006

Napa Valley Celebrity Sighting: Bill Gates at The Grill

By M.L. Hilton

(NAPA, CA) – I was enjoying my huevos rancheros at The Grill at Meadowood earlier this week. I am a connoisseur of this breakfast specialty, as my friends will attest, and ferret out the most delicious servings, but that is another story and I am getting off track.

It was a typically beautiful summer morning, not too early and not late. The temperature had not reached scalding yet (as has happened a couple of times this summer) and I was really liking the view and not reading my copy of the paper.

So, it was easy to be distracted by the conversation around me and to “accidentally” eavesdrop upon my neighbors. Yes, this is how rumors get started and I am about to repeat something heard on the Napa Valley grapevine.

The lively woman sitting one table down was chatting with a young couple across from her on the deck. She was recounting her lunch the day before (also at The Grill) when she and her lunch companions had a close encounter with a very important personage.

While this is clearly unconfirmed by the very discrete Meadowood staff, the woman was quite sure that it was Bill Gates and his wife who had dined al fresco overlooking the golf course. She definitely gave me the impression of someone in the know and I was intrigued by her account.

But not as much as the diner who apparently shared the same seat as the mogul. “Perhaps,” she said, as she finished her lunch and left her seat, “I will buy a lotto ticket today.”

July 19, 2006

Napa – Small Town Life in a World Class City

By M.L. Hilton

(NAPA, CA) -- With the magnificent events of the Festival del Sole underway and just off the heels of the renowned Auction Napa Valley (raising more than $8 million in just four days) it is easy to think of Napa as a place where big things happen. And big things usually happen in big places – it just makes sense: there are lots of people with lots of dollars in big places.

I think the census for Napa County is still just around the 100,000 persons mark. After 20 years, it seems I have met a fair bit of them.

Amongst ourselves, we tend to complain that Napa is incestuous, which means, if you are planning on making a catty comment, be careful. The person to whom you are speaking is likely the sister of the husband of the woman who lives across the street from the person towards whom you were aiming your not-so-Christian comment. And if you are over 35 and want to date, some good advice would be to take your little party self out of town.

I am frequently reminded of how close we are as a community, but two recent events made it all the more apparent.

I was enjoying a wonderful mother-daughter dinner with my very head-strong 17-year-old at the fabulous Bistro Jeanty in Yountville. My daughter is never more behaved or more congenial when I am footing the bill for a meal that would please a celebrity.

I have a martini, or some amazing concoction from the bar; Amelia drives. I order the tomato soup – served in a crock with a pastry top -- it is the most decadent soup that I have ever enjoyed. My daughter gets the snails and we go from there through conversation and critiques about life. It is our time to connect, and Lord knows we need it.

But I digress . . . the last time we enjoyed dinner at Jeanty, I forgot to leave with my credit card. I didn’t even miss it. I did, however, get a call from my waiter. He was happy to return my card to my home the next morning as he dropped his son off at school. You could call that service, but I know that it is just being a part of your home town. My tip was good that night, but not THAT good.

The next event that brought home how closely we are all tied, was a recent garbage night. You know, the night you have to drag all your garbage cans to the curb. My cans, all three of them, would easily fit my 5-foot, 100+ pound frame. I struggle, I pull, I crash into things and I get them on the street usually late, and usually when I am attired in my pajamas.

This particular night, a very fast little car, swooped through the neighborhood just as I had my recycling in hand. I gave a hoot at the car, yelled “slow down,” and dropped bottles and cans (making quite the racket) in the street.
Muttering to myself as I cleaned up the debris, I get in the house to the ringing of my cell phone. It is my daughter who is out-on-the-town. She wants to know, if I was throwing things at a passing car on our street. The teenage network had ratted me out.

Now, how small town is that?

June 11, 2006

Best Burger in Napa County

By M.L. Hilton

(Napa) -- Step away from the research. Put the hamburger down.

I voluntarily undertook a story assignment oh, about January. It sounded simple enough -- where's the best hamburger in Napa County? This is a topic that can be hotly debated, and one I didn't want to complete without doing the requisite research. It is not something, I felt, that you can just power through, analytically determining how the meat is cooked, what kind of meat is used, bun type, bun size, condiments, and even what's served on the side.

In order to seriously size up a great hamburger you have to be in the mood for a great burger. Luckily, I have been in the mood at least a couple of times a month. This, however, did not satisfy the editorial staff who saw the story stay perpetually on the assignment calendar. The problem was, and is, there is just another place around the corner that *really* has to be assessed.

Enough pressure was finally applied, and enough research completed to induce the release of my preliminary results, though I am sure this will be an ongoing topic

Absolutely Fabulous:
I found two burgers that I felt fell into the category of absolutely fabulous:

Boon Fly Café
Snake River Farms Kobe Burger on a Brioche Poppy Seed Bun with choice of cheese (blue cheese, for this taste test). This wins my award for the best burger in Napa County. I tried it three times just to be sure. This is also the more traditional of the two "fabulous" burgers, in that it is served with pickles, peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, and red onion, all on the side, of course. It comes with salad greens dressed with a light lemon vinaigrette that is very tasty and doesn’t make you miss fries. The burger is $12, by the time you add the beer and tip you are going to spend around $25.

Martini House
If you love seriously concentrated burger flavor, this is likely the sandwich for you. Take note: It is ONLY served at the bar downstairs, and only after 3:00 p.m. On the menu as Kobe & Cab, the Grilled Snake River Kobe Beef Cheese Burger is served large and stark. The burger is bigger than a man’s hand and is only complemented with a small tower of onion rings. There is no lettuce, no tomato, no anything except a slightly sweet dressing akin to French, some grilled onions, melted cheese and lots of juicy hamburger goodness: nothing disguises the great burger taste. BTW: This is a two-napkin endeavor, if anyone comes up to shake your hand – just grin at them.

The Cab served was Fusee, a 2003 California Cabernet by Sebastiani. The burger is $15.95, with the cab $20.95, tip on top.

In the Excellent Category:
The Grill at Silverado
Monday night is Kobe Burger Night at The Grill. An American Kobe Burger (also) from Snake River Farms on a Poppy Seed Roll with olive medley. Served with cole slaw or fries. Special price on Monday is $8.00; other nights $12.50

Celadon
On the lunch menu only, Snake River Farms American Kobe Chuck Burger with sun-dried tomato mayonnaise. Served with French fries or salad. $12.50.

What I didn’t like:
Fume Bistro & Bar
Their burger was good, but I didn’t think it was good enough for a really serious burger fix. On top of it, I did feel a little bait-and-switched: on Monday nights they have a special burger price – at the bar only. Since the wait was long they seated me at a table near the bar and charged me twice as much.

Good To Great:
Rutherford Grill cannot be left out of the good-to-great category. A big Angus Beef Burger served with a great Asian-style cole slaw side. There was sooo much chopped lettuce on the burger my friends watched, amused, to see if I would be able to eat it.

For the Burger Joints:
Taylors Refresher (gourmet price, but still a hamburger stand burger)
Big D Burgers
Andie' Cafe (located at the corner of Freeway Drive and Browns Valley by the car wash).

What I heard about, but haven’t yet tried:
I understand the CIA has an amazing foie gras burger. Sounds like something that has to be tried.
I also hear the Calistoga Inn puts together a mean burger. So those are next on my list.

Do you have a favorite burger on yours?
Read what our locals and visitors have to say about their favorite burger in Napa.

February 27, 2006

A serious case of puppy belly

Or, we could also call this blog: Hair of the Wine Dog

By M.L. Hilton

(NAPA) -- It’s an old southern expression and one I have invoked on a number of fabulous Wine Country dinner occasions. After a magnificent meal, you skooch your chair back a hair from the table, place your hands on your now protruding belly and declare in your best drawl: I do believe I have a serious case of puppy belly going on.

Wine dinners aside, real puppy bellies – in the form of assorted varieties of canines -- can be found at almost every winery in the world. It is this symbiosis that Craig McGill has set out to document.

Craig produced in 2004 a pictorial on the dogs of Australasian wineries. This book became a best seller and spawned several new editions. He, and cohort Peter Herring, were in Napa Valley late February scouting wineries and locations for their next book – Wine Dogs USA, the dogs of North American Wineries. The book will focus on about 10 states, covering parts of California, Oregon, Washington, Virginia, New York, and Michigan.

As part of his research, Craig came with a full compliment of dog toys and dog treats to help entice his next book subjects. Arriving from Australia, McGill was stopped in customs when the drug beagles smelled the goodies and “alerted” their handlers to the contraband.

Craig and Peter wine tasted, made inquiries, and traveled the Valley for a week before moving on to Sonoma and heading south for additional California wine countries. I ran into the guys their second night “in country.” We were bar mates, enjoying dinner in downtown Napa at Tuscany. After hearing their story, I invited myself along (to invoke another southern phrase) to see if “that dog could hunt.” After all the garlic flatbread I ate, I am surprised they let me trot along. (No jokes here about dog breath.)

At Domain Chandon in Yountville the next morning, Craig and Peter were charmed by the squirrels which they don’t have in Australia. A humming bird was also sighted through the picture window behind the tasting bar, prompting them to remark that they have insects in Australia that are bigger than the delicate bird.

We also stopped at the newly re-named Rubicon Estate (previously Niebaum Coppola). We tasted our way through five wines, and made purchases in the elegant tasting room, after confirming that the lovely Sofia was a dog-owner.

Our day together ended at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars which is well know for cabernets, and historically significant in that their 1973 S.L.V. Cabernet bested French wine in a now famous blind tasting in Paris 30 years ago. We hoped to catch a glimpse of Warren Winiarski with his dogs in tow, but even though he still works almost every day, we missed a hookup. We had to make due tasting wine at the wine bar and making plans to come back.

Craig undertook the book as an amusing project that combined his love of wine and dogs. He and his wife currently live in Sydney with three huskies. When asked the main differences in Australian wines and what they were tasking in Napa, Peter said: “It is a completely different world of flavor. You have to forget what you know and start again.”

The book -- started for fun -- sold more than 20,000 copies in Australia. In addition to the USA book, they are planning on publishing books on France and South Africa.

Wine Dogs USA will be available for purchase online at www.winedogs.com in September 2006. McGill will be back in Northern California in April for the photography shoots.

A Napa Valley only winery dog book was recently published, and is also available online. Check out www.winerydogs.com. The local book has no affiliation with the McGill’s indie publishing company, Giant Dog.

December 21, 2005

When Divas make scents

By M.L. Hilton

(ST. HELENA, CA) -- One of the most interesting aspects of a lifestyle that involves the enjoyment of wine is the varied vocabulary and discussion of wine’s sensory experience, much of which centers around things olfactory.

I must confess that I fail miserably at the “Smell That” wine game. Thom’s recent pronouncement of a Bonny Doon Syrah Port “brimming with aromas of raspberry Kool-Aid on steroids” escapes me. This confounds family and close friends who have accused me of having a shark’s keen sense of smell (apparently sharks can smell things as distant as two football fields away). But I guess my nose is a mother’s nose, meant for deciphering activities of those close to me. Or perhaps, it is just that I have not educated myself enough to label the hidden notes that waft out of a glass of “inky purple elixir,” yet I can clearly identify hidden hints of tobacco, secreted sweets, and other brushes with a day’s by-products.

It is my love of smells that drives me Upvalley to a little shop in St. Helena. Diva Perfumes is tucked tightly into a narrow storefront not quite mid-way up the west side of Main Street. At one point, the shop was much like an apothecary’s den with a prominent counter behind which the shopkeepers kept their wondrous goods—shelves and shelves of fragrances and scents from floor to ceiling. Steve and Jola Young have recently made a nod to modern buying patterns and now the interior boasts a small amount of delicate women’s finery meant to entice discerning shoppers off the street.

While lovely, it is the amazing perfumes, colognes, eau de’toilettes, and fragrances of wonderful breadth and complexity that I come for. Steve and Jola are not unlike alchemists. I bring them a simple description of the person that I am buying for and they disappear among the boxes peppering me with questions about their personality.

For the gentle, aged spirit that lives next door to me, I went home with a fragrance commissioned by the Medici’s in medieval Italy that softly, tenderly evoked tradition and longevity; beauty and serenity. I believe it is the only scent she wears now and when I catch a whiff of it when she is busy in the kitchen with her family’s evening meal it reminds me that she has more layers than just that of mother, grandmother, and wife of more than 50 years.

My beautiful South American girlfriend, as delicate as a doll and who dances until her shoes crumble off her feet, loves to garden. The scent we found for her would make you lose her amongst the roses. I think if we could not see her and had only our noses to find her, we would not be able to pick her out among the flowers.

Diva’s perfumes come from all corners of the earth (excepting those corners that mass produce today’s celebrity flavor du jour). When I come into the store, I can pretend that my purchases were discovered on some exotic trip to a faraway village. This is an experience I have never duplicated at the counter of a mall department store.

You can close your eyes and you can close your mind, but you cannot turn off your sense of smell, sound, taste or touch. I know in today’s society that is somewhat p.c. to abstain from personal fragrances on the off-chance that you might send someone into seizures caused by the random allergy. Some places have even gone so far as to declare themselves to be fragrance-free zones.

Of course there are smells that can send me into fits -- most better left unnamed, but often found in my adolescent son’s bedroom. If life, however, could not provide me the smell of a great meal when you walk into a family’s home, obvious black cherry (and alcohol) from a dark glass of wine, a salty man straight from his day’s work, or a fragrance that transmutes the ordinary into a fantasy, something would be lost to me. And it would be a dimension that I would mourn.

Diva Perfumes, 1309 Main St., St. Helena, CA 94574. (707) 963-4057

October 17, 2005

Yountville Daze

By M.L. Hilton

(YOUNTVILLE, CA) -- The Indian summer has been holding, and holding me in its spell. Sunday’s temperatures after a short spate of rain jumped to the 80’s. I briefly saw my vintner neighbor as he was watering my roses – roses he actually planted (that’s another story). He said he is looking down the barrel of several more weeks of harvest and that they were only a quarter picked by Sunday. The brief rain which to me smelled so fresh the next day, gave him a bit of a scare.

I dispatched household duties, okay I avoided them, and wandered to Yountville for afternoon repast. My favorite Sunday breakfast place is Sally Gordon’s café. Strong morning coffee laced heavily with cream, a big newspaper and something wonderful to eat while crowded out on the small porch if possible, with bicyclists, dogs, and other lazy bones like me.

I lucked out on a patio spot this weekend, mostly because I arrived so late in the day. I ordered that down home food favorite done winecountry-style: grilled cheese sandwich and potato salad. Of course, this was a three cheese with garden fresh tomatoes (yellow) on artisan bread and a very light and delicious potato salad – meaning hardly a hint of mayo. I was served a Luna Pinot Grigio laced with D’Arvo Raspberry syrup and read and ate until I became drowsy and the sun rolled down my back with the small beads of perspiration.

Sally wants to sell and I am worried that Gordon’s will go the way of that other great Yountville cafe, the Diner. Once a thriving breakfast place with always a huge wait (worth it) now turned into another wine tasting bar with oh-so-chic offerings. Probably fabulous, but just not the same.

My typical stop after Gordon’s is the Pioneer cemetery just up the street from the café. Sunday, I only paused briefly to read the ancient headstones before wandering down Yount Mill Road. It may seem a bit macabre, but it reminds me that my days are not so hard, nor my aging so fragile, and that healthy babies are a blessing no matter what era you live in.

Only an occasional car spoiled the hot sounds of the day – the sporadic bird call, the rustling of leaves caused by lizards and other denizens of the underbrush, insects floating in spinning clouds above the vineyards which still linger in a mysterious green cloak. There are spots of autumnal color but they are largely still at bay.

Perhaps I will rue the short season on the slopes this year, but for today a glass of wine, a messy sandwich, an old graveyard, and a hot walk down a vineyard lane are enough.

Gordon's Cafe & Wine Bar, 6770 Washington Street, Yountville, CA 94599 tel. +1 707.944.8246
dining review

October 14, 2005

Dinnerly Diversions at Budo

By M.L. Hilton

(NAPA, CA) -- The weather was in that exquisite state of balance last night. Its gentle weight against the skin was like the touch of a patient lover – the contact that reminds you that they are there, but without the insistence, only the promise or perhaps the reminder, of passion.

Even the late evening hour was temperate and the patio at Budo (www.restaurantbudo.com) did not have an empty table at 9 p.m. I cannot remember a more serene arrival of fall. Certainly last year this time we were in the throws of winter’s assault and I was on the slopes at Tahoe in late October.

Dinner itself was like an undulating dance, its own compliment to the softness of the night. I usually find strict Asian overtones in décor to be a little sterile, but the shadows cast by the light heighten the evening’s illusory promise.

Our table was attended meticulously and we indulged in the Chef’s Tasting Menu. The extravagance was not the amount of food, but in the variety. Each small dish (around eight) was an intricate creation. Carefully crafted and presented plates of sashimi, foie gras, sqab, steak, cheese, and dessert followed each other with precision. Even the changing of the silverware became part of the tightly executed procession.

The complexity in each dish teased tastebuds and the artful presentation on the plate deserved a few minutes of study. My dinner companion quipped that if he was the dishwasher, he would negotiate to be paid by the piece. Each white plate held but one offering, centered and well surrounded by porcelain.

If you are very hungry, the pace and quantity of the Tasting Menu may not be your first choice. But, if you have time to linger and savor, Chef James McDevitt’s offerings stimulate both conversation and consumption.

The night was a fabulous diversion. Conversation, it turns out, is a specialty of my dinner companion. His cell phone however, seems to be a casualty of a car fire. Along with the feast, do you think I was being fed . . . a line?

Budo closed Dec. 30, 2005.

October 10, 2005

Putting your Heart into it

By M.L. Hilton

(NAPA, CA) -- I have given up cooking. I am insisting that it has to do with the very 50’s kitchen I have: beyond small, rusting metal cabinets, and every tool I ever owned divvyed up between past long-term relationships. I didn’t buy a new spatula and I haven’t put a new man in my life. Perhaps that is fodder for the therapist’s couch.

I have however, been able to maintain sustenance by frequenting a number of Napa’s excellent restaurants. Last Monday (and Friday) I stopped by the new Zare. I had been to Hoss Zare’s new restaurant (www.zarenapa.com/Directions.htm), located where the old Red Hen used to be, when he promo’d the opening a few months back, but had never dropped by for dinner. Hoss is well known in the San Francisco restaurant scene for his work at a number of renowned eateries, as well as the places that currently bear his name.

Monday night the crowd was light and so was my mood, I had just the soup of the day and a warm beet salad served with an awesome cheese from Cowgirl Creamery (www.cowgirlcreamery.com). If you are thinking about great cheese as a gift for a loved one this holiday, make your order soon. These ladies get very busy during the holidays. Once you have had their cheese, the reason is obvious.

My meal was good and the bartender entertaining. Enough so, that I came back on Friday to get a feel for the place when the locals were out in force. Friday night’s service was as personal as Monday’s though I teased the bartender (I usually eat at the bar when dining alone) that I was only allotted two chocolate truffles at the end of my meal – since I didn’t eat the third that was presented on Monday.

A jazz duo played on Friday and the old building is nicely spruced up and feels clean. For those that remember it during its Red Hen heyday, the aging building had showed the many years of its use. Hoss is convivial and seems to already be greeting many of the locals by name. His heart-shaped logo and the romantic sentiments painted across the walls make it a nice choice for date night. I think the tourist crowds have not yet re-discovered this location for a fun and fulfilling dining experience. But, they will.

September 30, 2005

Another day in Napa Valley Paradise

By M.L. Hilton

(NAPA, CA) -- It was just average beautiful this morning on the way to work. The cool morning air lay in still pockets and a gentle mist hugged the hills like a veil obscuring the world outside the valley. There are some days you can look to the south over the Southern Crossing and see vestiges of San Francisco, but today we are in a world all our own.

The morning cadre of hot air balloons crowds the sky, floating like large Christmas ornaments against the grey blue. Lately they have been under attack by neighbors who wish to restrict the launch of the gentle giants. It never ceases to surprise me how restraining we have become in today’s society. I am a big proponent of if you are worried about something, buy more insurance. It pays for damages inflicted, and life goes on – in a much less boring way.

Last night, Napa’s historic Opera House (www.nvoh.org) featured Jason Petty in a retrospective of Hank Williams. Who would have known that wine and honky tonk went together? While the crowd was definitely leaning to the gray-haired set the seats were filled, and stompin’ n’ clappin’ rang through the air. I drug my pre-teen guitar-strummin’ son to the performance, but the sound of early American folk music does not yet have resonance with him. As for myself, growing up a child in the south, this music is inescapably tied to my youth.

Before the performance, my co-workers and I stayed late at the office and sampled a few wines. The original four poured were all Dashe Cellars (Sonoma County, CA) 2002 Zinfandels. We picked four different vineyards to sample:
Todd Brothers Ranch, Alexander Valley
Big River Vineyard, Alexander Valley
Louvau Vineyard, Old Vines, Dry Creek Valley; and
Dry Creek Valley.
It is always great fun to sit around in a group and listen to the discourse on taste, smell, and of course, to partake.

Michael Chiarello, our famed chef, TV personality, vintner and neighbor, dropped by for a minute and we were able to taste two of his fabulous and exclusive Chiarello Family Vineyards Zinfandels (http://www.chiarellofamilyvineyards.com). He is probably heavy into harvest work right now so it was doubly special to see him.

Celebrity drop-bys, part of what makes this just another day in paradise.